Arthur Miller was born in Manhattan on October 17, 1915. His family was wealthy and lived in Harlem until they fell on hard times after the failure of his father’s business and the stock market collapse of 1929. In 1934 he began studying English and writing drama at the University of Michigan. After graduating, Miller moved to New York and worked with the Federal Theatre Project, a group established as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, until the government closed the group in 1939 (partly due to concerns over possible communist ties).
Miller married Mary Grace Slattery in 1940, and his first Broadway production, The Man Who Had All the Luck, came in 1944. Unfortunately, it ran afoul of the critics and closed after a mere four performances. He had better luck in 1947 with All My Sons, directed by Elia Kazan. It was, however, the production of Death of a Salesman (also directed by Kazan) in 1949 that cemented Miller’s place in the American canon. The play won Miller a Tony Award, a NY Drama Critic’s Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Making The Crucible
Miller began thinking about the Salem witch trials as possible source material for a play not long after the wave of hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 that resulted in the implementation of the Hollywood Blacklist. In 1951, while visiting Hollywood with Kazan to try and raise interest in a new screenplay they were working on together, Miller met Marilyn Monroe, and they started a brief affair. Miller and Kazan were ultimately unsuccessful, and Miller left Hollywood, also leaving Monroe and the threat he felt she posed to his sense of duty to his marriage.
As Miller’s relationship with his wife deteriorated, the anti-communist rhetoric intensified. By the early 1950s, many of those brought before HUAC decided to admit to communist sympathies and name names in order to avoid the Blacklist.
In 1952 Kazan was called before HUAC, and while he initially refused to incriminate others, he eventually bowed to political pressure. Kazan named eight people he had worked with at the Group Theatre, including playwright Clifford Odets. Unsurprisingly, Miller and Kazan had a falling out over Kazan’s actions.
In the middle of the paranoia created by the HUAC hearings and his own struggles with remaining loyal to his wife in light of his affair with Monroe, Miller’s play The Crucible was produced on Broadway, opening at the Martin Beck Theatre on January 22, 1953. Although the initial reviews were somewhat mixed, the play won the Tony Award for best play. The Crucible has become a classic of the American repertoire and remains one of Miller’s most frequently produced works around the world.
Miller and the Red Scare
The HUAC committee was not happy with the criticism of its practices that The Crucible suggested, and denied Miller a passport to attend the 1954 London opening of his play. On June 8, 1956, Miller was subpoenaed to appear before the committee. Miller and Marilyn Monroe had renewed their affair, and on June 11th his divorce from his first wife was made official. Miller appeared before the HUAC committee on June 21st, accompanied by Monroe (they married a week later, on June 29). When asked to identify other people he knew to be involved in the Communist Party, Miller echoed the lines he had given to John Proctor in The Crucible, saying, “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” Miller was found guilty of Contempt of Congress in May 1957, fined, sentenced to prison, Blacklisted, and denied his passport. In 1958 this decision was overturned.
During this HUAC turmoil, Miller re-worked A View from the Bridge from an unsuccessful one-act (1955) to a full two-act play which premiered on Broadway on October 11, 1956, directed by Peter Brook. He then began working on the film The Misfits, starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Miller and Monroe’s marriage crumbled during filming, and they divorced just before the film’s premiere. The film was inauspicious on many levels: Clark Gable had a heart attack two days after filming ended and died shortly thereafter. Monroe would die of a drug overdose just a year and a half later.
The Later Days of Arthur Miller
In February of 1962 Miller married Inge Morath (who had been the documentary photographer on The Misfits – they would remain together until her death in 2002). In 1964 Miller re-united with Elia Kazan and the two collaborated on After the Fall. The play was partly autobiographical, and critics and the public alike censored Miller’s unflattering portrayal of the character Maggie, who appeared to be a thinly disguised stand-in for Marilyn Monroe.
Incident at Vichy premiered in 1964, and The Price, which was nominated for two Tony Awards, debuted on Broadway in 1968 (Miller lost in the Best Play category to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). During the 1970s and 80s Miller wrote a number of plays and one-acts with mixed reviews, as well as a number of essays on the theatre. The 1990s saw three new plays by Miller, as well as the screenplay for the film version of The Crucible starring Daniel Day-Lewis (1996). In 1999 Miller was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize as well as a Special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. Finishing the Picture, Miller’s last play, opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in October of 2004. Arthur Miller died on February 10, 2005, aged 89.